East Timor Bids for Stability After Spasm of Violence

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East Timor remains in turmoil after surviving a week of the worst factional fighting since it split from Indonesia seven years ago. In the wake of 30 deaths, the tiny nation seeks to prove it is capable of peaceful self-rule.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. Coming up, the king of beers in New Orleans. But first, this week the tiny nation of East Timor experienced the worst spasm of violence since its bloody split from Indonesia seven years ago. In-fighting between former and current members of East Timor's security forces, coupled with gang violence in the streets of the capital, left 30 people dead and tens of thousands internally displaced. NPR's Michael Sullivan is in Dili and has this report.


About this time last week, it looked as if things couldn't get much worse. East Timor teetering on the brink, auditioning for the role of the world's latest failed state, one the United Nations not long ago touted as an example of successful nation building. But East Timor remains desperately poor, with a largely untrained workforce and too many vying for what few resources there are. In the past few days though, the arrival of the Australian-led peacekeepers has helped quell the violence. They have separated and in some cases disarmed the rival factions and forced the gangs into hiding. The emergency room at Dili's main hospital was relatively quiet today, only a few patients, says Dr. Santina Gomez[ph], victims of the violence.

Dr. SANTINA GOMEZ: (Foreign Language Spoken)

SULLIVAN: We have one patient who was shot in the back of the head and another hit with a brick. Other than that, she says, most of the cases have been fairly routine, fever, diarrhea and the like. She is grateful for the respite, but worries what might happen if conditions in the temporary camps worsen. The longer the people stay in the camps, the greater the risk of disease. The hospital is well protected by Australian peacekeepers. Several dozen backed up by armored personnel carriers discourage would-be troublemakers. That peacekeeping force now totals more than 2,000, with recent additions from New Zealand, Malaysia and soon from Portugal. Australia's Foreign Minister Alexander Downer in Dili today made it clear his country does not want that military presence to be open-ended, intimating that the United Nations should quickly assume responsibility for security here.

Foreign Minister ALEXANDER DOWNER (Australia): Clearly there will be quite a need for an international police presence here and probably for quite some time, and I think it would be appropriate for the international police presence to offer aid under the hospices of the United Nations and hopefully, the United Nations will be able to draw in a broader police presence in time and in that context our military will be able to downsize.

SULLIVAN: The United Nations was due to end its seven-year-long experiment in nation-building here next month. Some analysts suggest the U.N. was too quick to leave without proper democratic institutions or a functioning economy in place, an explanation that might help explain the recent violence. Divisions reinforced by Foreign Minister Downer's meetings in Dili today with East Timor's leadership. Separate meetings with the prime minister, then the president, the two men at odds with how to deal with the crisis. And while the violence is ebbing, it has not ended. Even as the foreign minister spoke, a thick plume of black smoke floated lazily into the clouds not half a mile away, a Chinese restaurant torched by unknown assailants not a hundred yards from an Australian checkpoint and armored personnel carriers.

(Soundbite of people speaking foreign language)

SULLIVAN: The fire quickly spreads to the house next door and its occupant, Morin De Gomez(ph), comes running out with a few possessions, then turns around and runs back for his dog inadvertently left behind.

Mr. MORIN DE GOMEZ: (Foreign Language Spoken)

SULLIVAN: We were taking a nap when I woke up and realized what was happening. I woke the others and we just ran, he says. I managed to grab my TV and my DVD player and that's it. Everything else, he says, is gone. Ask him who did this and he says what everyone says, I have no idea, but he is leaving, catching a ride across the border to safety in Indonesia, the country most here voted to leave seven years ago, hoping for a better future. Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Dili.

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